By Tova Norman
The High Holidays are known as a traditional showcase for cantors, but as synagogues across Atlanta await their biggest crowds of the year, few local cantors are preparing to lead services.
Only four area synagogues employ full-time professional cantors. All of them are Reform congregations.
No Conservative synagogue in Atlanta employs a full-time cantor.
“For a large city, Atlanta is the exception to the rule,” said Hazzan Stephen J. Stein, the executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. “Most of the major Jewish communities have cantors who are engaged by their congregation.”
Rachel Roth, the chief operating officer of the American Conference of Cantors, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, said the demand for cantors has been growing nationally.
“Congregations are now looking for an ordained ACC cantor to add to their team,” she said. “In the past three years we’ve seen an increase of the number of placements.”
Rabbi Neil Sandler of Ahavath Achim Synagogue said that not having a full-time cantor on staff has to do with finances.
“It’s a rare congregation that doesn’t have to make resource choices,” he said.
Hearing a traditional cantor is an important part of the High Holiday experience to many congregants, which is why AA brings in a cantor to lead the service in the main sanctuary.
“That voice, that quality, that traditional hazzanut still speaks to a number of people,” Rabbi Sandler said, adding that perhaps it reminds them of the late Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, who served as the congregation’s cantor for 30 years.
But Rabbi Sandler also sees a shift in what communal worship means to his community. In fact, he plans to spend his upcoming sabbatical studying communal worship to help AA “prepare for the future in that regard.”
“What is communal worship all about? What brings us spiritual uplift?” Rabbi Sandler said. “In general, there is a movement away from the classical cantor.”
The same is true in the Orthodox movement, but for different reasons.
“The profession of Orthodox cantor has diminished greatly,” Cantor Sherwood Goffin said. “We lost many full-time positions that had been there for generations.”
Cantor Goffin, the renowned cantor of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York who retired in January after more than 50 years and is a faculty member at the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York, is also the co-president of the Cantorial Council of America, which is composed of alumni of the Belz School and affiliated Orthodox cantors in North America and Israel.
He said many Orthodox congregations in this generation are full of knowledgeable, yeshiva-educated members who think they can lead a service, although many do not have the background knowledge to do so properly.
“If Mr. Schwartz in the front row has a beautiful voice, let him serve, and it won’t cost us anything,” he said. “That became a groundswell.”
Congregations began to replace a full-time cantor with an assistant rabbi and have lay people lead services free.
At Congregation Beth Jacob in Toco Hills, congregants now lead services, and the choir consists of the entire congregation.
“Our High Holiday service has a significant amount of singing, but if you came, you would hear hundreds of voices,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, explaining that congregants also desired a more participatory service in which they would not be “entertained” but would be “inspired in their own prayer.”
This move toward a more participatory service is happening across the Jewish world.
Ahavath Achim offers an alternative High Holiday service without a cantor.
“There are more people today who experience spiritual uplift in engagement, in hearing the voices in the service, as opposed to hearing that one voice,” Rabbi Sandler said.
In a Sephardic prayer service, congregational singing plays an integral role traditionally, said Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla of Congregation Or VeShalom.
Although Or VeShalom does not have a full-time cantor, it brings in a cantor for the High Holidays “to inspire us,” Rabbi Kassorla said. “When it comes to the High Holidays, we need someone more professional.”
He attributed the need to the importance of the days, pointing out that the hazzan (cantor) is known as a shaliach tzibur — a representative of the community.
“The cantor is our representative in front of the Lord, and we take it very seriously,” he said.
Because the community is so diverse at Or VeShalom — comprised of Sephardim from many lands and Ashkenazim from many areas — it is important for the cantor to bring in tunes from all of those traditions.
“A cantor who does too many solos would not be looked at as a success in a Sephardic congregation,” Rabbi Kassorla said. “There are various landmarks in the prayer book, where this is the tune that has been sung for hundreds of years, and this is the one that we want our children and grandchildren to know, and this is the one that we want to be transmitted to the next generation.”
At The Temple, Cantor Deborah Hartman works with the clergy team and a musical team to craft a High Holiday worship experience for congregants.
“We have an amazing musical team at The Temple: a professional quartet, each of whom has been with The Temple for decades; two organists; and a pianist,” Cantor Hartman said. “Because we provide multiple worship opportunities in various worship spaces, it takes all of us to accommodate our worship needs.”
Before the holidays, “the clergy of The Temple come together to discuss every aspect of our worship,” Cantor Hartman said. “We talk about the flow, the arc, the timing and the music that serves each text.”
That type of planning is one thing a trained cantor offers to a congregation.
“There are things and training that an ordained cantor brings to the table that a cantorial soloist does not,” Roth said.
Cantor Hartman, who arrived at The Temple in 1987, began as a cantorial soloist, a person who leads prayers but does not have formal cantorial training (she held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Ithaca College).
She became a certified cantor in 1998 after five years of “intensive training and mentoring with rabbis and cantors alike.”
“When I was a soloist, I was a Jewish woman who sang Jewish music,” she said. “When I became certified as a cantor, I became part of the clergy team here at The Temple.”
Cantor Hartman said that although she plans and leads services, the position of cantor entails much more, including pastoral duties, program planning and worship visioning.
“I think every cantor makes the job their own and brings certain specialties to the position,” she said.
“They work side by side in the congregation with their clergy partners,” Roth said, explaining that many cantors tutor b’nai mitzvah students, teach children and adults, and provide pastoral care, along with leading services.
Cantor Stein said that the Conservative movement is seeing a similar expansion of the cantorial role.
“The cantor does so many things in the congregation,” he said. “The profession has never been more exciting than it is today because of the variety of things that cantors are involved in.”
Cantor Goffin thinks the Orthodox community will again value the important role of the cantor.
“People are going to realize that the quality of the service is deteriorating. Eventually, the Orthodox cantorate will revive,” he said. “In the future, I think synagogues will pay cantors to do multiple tasks and be active members of the clergy staff. That’s what many are doing now.”
Cantor Goffin himself was the head of the Hebrew school at Lincoln Square Synagogue for 41 years while he was also head cantor.
He emphasized that without a trained cantor, traditional tunes are being lost. “I believe that the most important thing now is to stress that there are rules of conducting services that have been handed down to us over the last five or six hundred years.”
Every paragraph in the prayer book has a certain musical mode — a type of scale, coupled with a set of characteristic melodic phrases, Cantor Goffin said. The Ashkenazi tradition has six modes.
To have a lay leader, even a knowledgeable one, lead services is not the same as having a trained cantor, he said. “We’re academics. We have studied this our entire lives.”
Preserving the traditional nusach (melody of the service), which is different for each holiday, is important.
“The music creates an aura in the synagogue of the particular holiday,” Cantor Goffin said. “That musical aura envelops the congregants and puts them into the mood of the particular day.”
Being trained in the nusach and the mode enables the cantor to improvise and connect with the prayer. “There is no rhythm to it,” he said. “It’s a plea. It’s an interpretation of the words, and it’s ancient.”
He also said the music helps the congregants pray. For that very reason, many halachic sources declare that one may not change the musical tradition of the synagogue.
“It’s important for congregants to be able to concentrate to have kavanah, and the music adds to it,” Cantor Goffin said.
“Melodies are the language of the soul,” said Rabbi Feldman, who agreed that preserving the traditional nusach is important. “Prayer is not a purely intellectual undertaking. It’s a very spiritual and emotional undertaking. It’s about connecting.”
While Cantor Goffin wants to preserve the tradition, the Reform and Conservative movements aim to weave traditional melodies with new texts to engage their congregations.
“We naturally bring back the beloved, established melodies from one year to the next, but at the same time add new musical versions of some texts,” Cantor Hartman said. “If a contemporary composition sets the text appropriately and speaks authentically to the nature of the prayer, it is a good candidate for inclusion.”
Cantor Stein said the cantor plays an important role in introducing a variety of melodies.
“It’s the task of the cantor to make sure that that liturgy remains fresh and impressive, and the cantor can do that by introducing different musical settings,” he said. “We understand that people want to be engaged.”
The music helps engage them.
“Music moves the text. The text is more important, but music adds that layer of emotion that enhances its meaning,” Cantor Hartman said. “When you’re able to transmit the emotion of the prayer through the music, it brings the prayer to life. I always like to say that G-d hears all our prayers, but when we sing them, they get there faster.”
Cantors help make that musical inspiration more effective.
“I think cantors bring their love of music and liturgy to the Jewish people in a way that can touch them,” Roth said. “It’s a portal to a worship experience or a community experience that you don’t get in many other ways.”
While Cantor Stein acknowledged that the nontraditional movements are facing real demographic challenges, he argued that a cantor offers something worth adding to the budget because “music is so important to the vibrancy of a religious institution.”
“Those that thrive and continue to thrive are going be those that engage a professional to carry out the musical aspect of congregational life,” he said.